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Jonathan Yardley on 'For the Love of Animals'

A history of the treatment of animals traces its shift from cruel to kindly.

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 20, 2008; Page BW15

FOR THE LOVE OF ANIMALS

The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement

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By Kathryn Shevelow

Henry Holt. 352 pp. $27.50

Chances are that as you read these words you are in the company of one or more domestic animals: a dog or a cat most likely, but perhaps a parakeet or even a pot-bellied pig. Indeed as I write, I have at my feet two dachshunds, Sophie and Clifford, snoozing away on their tuffet, and somewhere in the apartment lurks Wayne, the alley cat, who honors me with his presence when -- and only when -- he jolly well feels like it. When my wife is at home we are a household of five, and at times it can be exceedingly difficult to determine who, exactly, owns whom.

There is nothing new about this, which is one of the many useful points made by Kathryn Shevelow in this exceptionally interesting history of the animal protection movement in 18th and 19th century England. In my own family, pets have been around for generations. My parents had dogs throughout their marriage of a half century, and I have a photograph of my grandmother happily in the company of a bedraggled creature that appears to be a cocker spaniel. A spaniel can be seen in the pages of For the Love of Animals in the lap of the future King Charles II, in a portrait by an unknown artist painted in 1630. For as long as some species of animals have been susceptible to domestication, there have been people eager for their company and love.

More broadly, though, the record of human treatment of animals over the centuries has been notable primarily for its cruelty, brutality and selfishness. This has been founded not merely in human nature but in elaborate philosophical and scientific argument. In the 17th century, Kathryn Shevelow writes, Britain's exalted Royal Society held the position that "animals existed to provide humans with food, clothing, implements, labor, and, in the case of science, knowledge." The "mainstream western tradition of thinking about animals" held "the belief, most influentially articulated by Aristotle, that animals possess very low forms of intelligence at best, and are incapable of higher reason." One 17th-century British dissenter was Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, who spoke up on behalf of animals, but:

"She was dissenting not only from the philosophical and theological traditions known to the educated elite but also from the beliefs of most ordinary people, who were utterly unaware of the intellectual arguments and even the scriptural authority that underlay, or justified, their attitudes and behavior. Most people simply used, and abused, animals as labor, food and sport because that was what people had always done. One did not have to be a conscious Cartesian to believe that sympathy for an animal's suffering when we injure it was nearly as preposterous as concern for a tree's pain when we prune its limbs."

So people treated animals accordingly. In England, which is the focus of Shevelow's first-rate study of the shift in the 18th and early 19th centuries from callousness to a kindlier attitude toward animals, the "passion for animal baiting, bullrunning, cockfighting and dogfighting, cockthrowing, and human prizefighting earned [the British] a reputation for cruelty among Europeans." This British passion extended across class lines and was embraced every bit as much by the foxhunting bluebloods as by the bear-baiting lower orders. Scientists used animals for experiments as a matter of routine, frequently subjecting them to extreme pain; vivisections were common, justified "by means of the anthropocentric argument that animals existed to serve the greater good of humans." Performing animals were everywhere, many of them regularly abused in the course of training.

But even as they entertained, Shevelow argues, these animals contributed to a slowly growing, near-invisible change in public attitudes about animals. "These monkeys and apes," she writes, "like other animal performers to be found at fairs, inns, and street corners, displayed such a remarkable ability to dance, bow, calculate sums, and read that they seemed to call into question on a popular level the position challenged by Margaret Cavendish on a philosophical level: the assertion that animals are incapable of 'knowledge, sense, reason, or intelligence.' " These animals -- "a 'horse of knowledge,' for instance, or a 'sagacious pig' -- seemed to blur the lines between human and animal," and "these animal performances contributed to an emerging sense of kinship and identification with beasts."

So too, of course, did the growing popularity of domestic pets: "What had changed in the eighteenth century was the scale on which pets firmly established themselves in the homes of the middle and working classes throughout town and country -- and the intensity of the bonds people were forging with these animals in their homes. . . . Probably no other development in the history of humans' relationship with beasts had such a profoundly positive impact upon the status of animals as did the spread of pet keeping. As more and more people of all social classes shared their lives with pets -- those lucky creatures whose most important role was to provide companionship rather than labor or food -- it became increasingly difficult to think of animals as soulless machines or irrational bundles of appetites."

It was a long haul, though, from the prevailing attitudes of the 18th century to the enactment in Parliament, in 1822, of the Ill-Treatment of Cattle Act, "the world's first animal-protection law passed by a national legislature." Changes in public opinion came slowly and against formidable obstacles. Animals were routinely abused by farmers, stagecoach drivers, haulers and others who used animals as labor; these people had a vested interest in the status quo, and were fiercely opposed to those who stood up on behalf of animals, including Evangelicals who "genuinely believed in extending Christian charity to beasts for their own sake."

The most important and perhaps the most improbable defender of animal rights was a feisty member of Parliament from Ireland, Richard Martin. He was celebrated in Ireland for the duels he had fought and the many scars they earned him; he "was imbued not only with loyalty to his people and with the physical courage to duel over an affront, but also with the passion to fight in the public and political arena for a just cause." He "was a reformer, both by instinct and by experience," but he also possessed a "capacity for compromise and moderation and [an] ability to work with others." He was a smart, resourceful politician:

"Martin clearly enjoyed playing into English stereotypes about hot-tempered Irish squires who settled problems with fisticuffs, if not with duels. Actually, his speeches in Parliament often displayed a well-informed mind, political independence from both the government and the opposition, and a principled adherence to the measures he considered best for the Irish people, particularly its Catholics. He was quite capable of thinking and acting strategically on behalf of his causes. But many of his colleagues tended to view Martin as a jokester, even a buffoon -- an impression he seemed to encourage. He often acted the wag, cultivating his reputation for eccentricity, making speeches so witty that his colleagues were convulsed in laughter, though it also inclined them to underestimate him."

By 1822, when Martin rose to speak on behalf of his bill to protect cattle, important changes had taken place. Revulsion over slavery had awakened people to the injustices inflicted upon animals as well as humans; the urbanization of the country had brought more and more animals into houses as beloved domestic pets; "the horrific plight of the country's work animals and of animals in slaughterhouses was relentlessly on display in urban centers"; a powerful speech in Parliament by Thomas Erskine in 1809, "one of the greatest pieces of oratory ever delivered on behalf of animals," had begun to soften opposition in that body; the foundation that same year of the Society for Preventing Wanton Cruelty to Brute Animals had begun the process of organizing animal lovers as an effective political bloc.

The bill that Martin got through Parliament in 1822 was a compromise and of limited effectiveness. Efforts by Martin and others to close its loopholes and expand its protections were stoutly resisted; not until 1835, a year after Martin's death, did Parliament extend his bill's protections "to bulls, dogs, and 'any other cattle or domestic animal.' " Animals, possessed of no voice to speak for themselves, have always depended on the kindness of humans, and too often that kindness has been woefully lacking. But as Shevelow shows in For the Love of Animals, and as we know from all the things that have taken place in the nearly two centuries since Martin's bill was approved, it is possible to mobilize people on their behalf and to ameliorate the conditions of their lives.

For the Love of Animals is exemplary in every respect. Shevelow, who teaches 18th-century British literature and culture at the University of California at San Diego, obviously has strong feelings about her subject, but she has not written a jeremiad. She is scrupulous in her research, fair to all participants in the ongoing debate, and writes eminently readable prose. It is a special bonus that she has rescued Richard Martin from oblivion and given him the respect he so clearly deserves. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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